For decades, Jehovah’s Witnesses have attended yearly multi-day assemblies, often sitting through scorching heat, fighting off sleep, attempting to take notes during an onslaught of talk after talk, all the while secretly praying for the end to come. No, not the end of the world, but the end of the assembly.
Most Witnesses faithfully endured an endless barrage of material, which was largely recycled from earlier conventions, but with a new convention theme such as “Divine Truth” or “Kingdom Loyalty”. The loyalty theme from the 1981 assembly series has been reinvented for 2016 as “Remain Loyal to Jehovah.”
One bright spot amidst an endless sea of lectures has always been the dramatic reenactments of Biblical tales, performed by local JW “actors” who attempted to lip-sync to an audio track provided by the Watchtower’s Governing Body. While tacky and exaggerated, these dramas served to break up the monotony of the assemblies, which was a welcome relief.
Whether a person is a believer in the Bible or not, the stories were often compelling and included an application for Witnesses, which they could pocket and take home with them. After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good story? If we demanded truth with all of our entertainment, movies like Star Wars and The Hobbit would have never been produced.
There is a deep emotional and psychological connection tied to theater, movies, television, and music. Since the days of Charles Taze Russell and his Photo-Drama of Creation, religious organizations have taken advantage of the power of media. With the availability of large, bright, affordable, portable displays coupled with advanced video production software, the Jehovah’s Witness organization has launched a new and improved video services department and have expanded their scope to include feature-length presentations designed to reach the emotional center of every viewer. The days of synced acting to audio recordings is now a footnote in Watchtower’s history.
Previously, JW Survey has covered many of the 3-5 minute long indoctrination videos, such as the Bunker series. In this article, we summarize and address the longer films, specifically the “Job” drama and the “Hezekiah” drama. It’s really hard to call them dramas anymore, as Watchtower has spared no cost to ensure that the highest quality production was achieved.
To be honest, I think Watchtower has realized its goal. These movies are like nothing else ever produced by this organization, and it is no wonder that the videos themselves are in fact the “new release” for 2016. That’s right folks, there are no books, no tracts, no booklets, nothing in print. This is a fascinating transition, as Watchtower publications have always been viewed as an extension of the Bible, with one complementing the other. But video? What would Jesus say? If he were alive, would he preach using a camera and sophisticated software?
Clearly, the continual strain of producing written material year after year, followed by its distribution to tens of thousands of congregations worldwide, has taken its toll on the organization, both financially and physically. And, let’s be honest, there are less readers in the world these days and more viewers. Pushing out a data stream of videos through the JW.org website seems to be the most advantageous method of reaching the four corners of the globe, where users, even in remote villages, are obtaining tablets and smartphones.
The two dramas discussed in this article follow a long tradition for Jehovah’s Witness assemblies, that of orchestrating a dramatic presentation of a Biblical tale, complete with period costumes and driving the assembly theme home with a modern-day play, one that evokes real life circumstances. The Hezekiah drama is the former, and the Job film the latter.
The Job Drama
“Hope For What We Do Not See”
The film opens in a remote corner of Peru; an ambulance speeds frantically down an isolated stretch of highway. Inside, a paramedic wearing surgical gloves examines the identification of a female Jehovah’s Witness, Elena Ortiz (later called Carrie). The camera focuses tightly on a small card found on Elena’s person, a document which says “No Blood Transfusions Accepted”. Her husband rides with the ambulance and, as we find out later, watches his wife bleed to her death.
Immediately, we are transported to a placid beach, presumably in the United States, where Ethan Bannister explains a shooting star to his two sons, Rowan and Cory. He points out the constellation Leo, then tells the boys that Jehovah has a name for every star in the universe.
All is well in the Bannister world as the family enjoys time spent together in recreation, preaching, attending meetings, and even family study, where the boys act out the Biblical scene of David killing the giant Goliath.
But the paradise soon begins to crumble. Ethan’s worldly supervisor Conrad breaks the news that Ethan must choose between losing his job or taking a promotion at an associated plant – a job offer which includes a raise – along with the drawback of an almost 2 hour commute each way and overtime. It’s promotion or deletion, and Ethan chooses deletion.
Next, Ethan’s father Nathaniel reveals that Ethan’s brother Bill has contacted him, and Nathaniel reveals that he has some doubts about the way he raised his sons, particularly since Bill was never baptized as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“You’ve got to understand son, you both are my boys,” says Nathaniel.
The real tragedy unfolds when Nathaniel picks up his grandsons, Rowan and Cory, from school but never makes it home; Nathaniel and Cory are instantly killed in a horrific accident. The Hollywood-esque style funeral takes place on a somber rainy day, inside a Kingdom Hall where mortified Jehovah’s Witnesses turn pages in their Silver Edition Bible. Ethan’s non-JW brother Bill is missing from the Kingdom Hall but shows up at Ethan’s home later to offer support and financial assistance.
Ethan attempts to comfort his son Rowan, who asks, “How can Jehovah let this happen?” Ethan answers by saying that there is no one to blame and that they will see Cory again.
The tragedies continue to pile on; unemployed Ethan next receives the news that he has cancer and must undergo immediate radiation treatments. The bills are stacking up when Ethan’s non-JW brother Bill arrives, once again, offering flowers and an explanation for why he never became a Jehovah’s Witness. Bill says that their father Nathaniel wanted him to be someone he wasn’t, and he suggests that Ethan no longer needs to be a Witness since Nathaniel is deceased. Bill reveals that the religion ruined his relationship with their father and that Ethan just played along with Dad all these years to keep the family together.
A fight ensues; Bill reminds Ethan that he has no money, he is drowning in debt, and he does not even have a job. He tells Ethan to “grow up” and take care of his family. “You can’t live on these prayers and fantasies forever,” says Bill, while Ethan rejects yet another offer for financial assistance.
Ethan’s woes continue as he is hospitalized for the removal of a tumor. Once home, he receives a visit from his childhood friend Victor, who has returned to the area and offers to help repair Ethan’s storm damaged roof. Victor mentions that the elder body needs Ethan and that they would even lighten the load for him, but Ethan reveals he has deeper issues at the moment.
The attention next shifts to Ethan’s wife Sasha, who finally breaks down under all the stress and cries when a mother, at school, attempts to comfort her. The woman’s words haunt her: “Everything happens for a reason.” Sasha argues with Ethan over his lack of communication with her and storms away from the dinner table.
In a surprise twist, Ethan breaks down and locates his former supervisor Conrad, hoping to get his job back but finds that the plant has closed, and Conrad himself is looking for work. This moment of weakness opens the door for Conrad, who tells Ethan that his dad was killed in the first Gulf War, just two days before his scheduled return. Conrad states that he begged God to bring his dad home; instead, an explosive device killed him.
Conrad tells Ethan: “Prayer – there’s nobody listenin’. And if there is a God, he doesn’t have time for us.”
At this point, Ethan and his family have hit rock bottom and have even ceased attending meetings. A visit from 2 elders ensues, where Sasha reveals her guilt for asking her father-in-law to pick up the boys the day of the accident. One of the elders directs Sasha to read Ecclesiastes, chapter 9, verse 11, “just part B” – which states “because time and unexpected events overtake them all.” These words fall deaf on Ethan, who says, “I know no one caused it, but no one stopped it either.” When the younger of the two Witnesses says, “I know it’s been tough,” Ethan lashes back and asks him how he knows this and what he knows about burying his father and son on the same day. Ethan walks away, and says, “I’m done.”
In the next scene, Victor returns, with his pickup truck and tools, ready to repair Ethan’s roof. Before he begins, he explains that he had previously been a “need-greater” in Peru, but when his circumstances changed he moved to New Mexico to help a congregation while trying to “stay focused.” Victor then invites Ethan to visit his parent’s cabin in the woods. The two men reconnect under the idyllic setting of a rushing stream, picturesque cabin, and miles of hiking trails. Ethan notices a photo on Victor’s smartphone and asks who the woman is. Victor says she was Carrie, his wife. He explains that, while serving in the ministry in Peru, everything changed when Carrie was killed in the accident mentioned at the outset of this plot summary. Ethan is emotionally affected by this and asks Victor, “How did you cope?” Victor replies, “I just find a beautiful quiet spot, and I pray.” Victor manages to restore Ethan’s faith in prayer and hope for the future, and the two men walk away, cathartically regenerated. Ethan reconnects with Sasha, then with his son, Rowan.
The pendulum begins to swing in the opposite direction for Ethan as he returns to his doctor, who informs him that his cancer is in remission. On the heels of this news, we find that Ethan is suddenly back to work, back to the meetings (as an elder), and completely medication free. As if his regenerated life were not enough, his brother Bill finds a Jehovah’s Witness tract in his door and thoughtfully contemplates the message. Meanwhile, Sasha’s fellow school-mom, also, accepts a Witness tract entitled, “Can the Dead Really Live Again?”
This theme continues into the family Bible reading as Rowan reads from the book of Job, chapter 14:
“If a man dies, can he live again?
I will wait all the days of my compulsory service
Until my relief comes”
The story ends with the following narrative, also taken from Scripture, this time from Romans chapter 8, verse 24:
“For we were saved in this hope; but hope that is seen is not hope, for when a man sees a thing, does he hope for it? But if we hope for what we do not see, we keep eagerly waiting for it with endurance.”
The Hezekiah Drama
“Oh Jehovah, I Trust in You”
The period drama opens in Jerusalem, in the year 732 B.C.E. Like the Job drama, the opening scene is a flashback, this time to the event where Judean King Hezekiah spreads out the demands of Assyrian King Sennacherib at the steps of the gold lined temple, along with a prayer to God for salvation, with a request that all nations know that Jehovah is the True God.
Again we flash back, this time 8 years further, to 740 B.C.E. where the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria is brutally decimated by the Assyrian army. One Israelite soldier manages to escape by removing the uniform of a dead Assyrian. He flees on foot all the way to Jerusalem, where he is brought before King Hezekiah and his military advisers. We encounter Hezekiah in the streets of Jerusalem, recounting the tale of David and Goliath to several young boys. The boys recite the Biblical tale with great enthusiasm, including the part of the story where David slings a stone of death into Goliath’s head, which he then cuts off with his sword.
Then, a little girl approaches Hezekiah carrying a young turtle-dove, which can’t fly, so the King tells the girl to keep it close and warm, and makes her promise not to keep the bird locked up in a cage, but when it is able to fly, set it free.
Back in Hezekiah’s chambers, the Samarian refugee Joel is introduced to Jaziel (with the Army) along with advisers Eliakim and Shebna. Also included in the inner circle is Isaiah the prophet. Joel describes the brutality of the Assyrians, who hacked off hands, arms and heads en route to their conquest, even skinning alive the leading men of the city. Joel breaks down after describing the loss of his wife and all his children.
Behind closed doors, arguments arise over the correct strategy to follow, in light of the Assyrian conquest. Isaiah reminds everyone that Samaria fell, not because of lack of tribute to Assyria, but because the Samaritans were worshiping false gods, and Jehovah foretold and permitted the destruction on that basis.
Shebna wishes to enlist the help of Egypt against the Assyrians, but Isaiah strongly objects, citing prior failed alliances with foreign nations.
Meanwhile … in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Sennacherib continues his brutal reign. Then, he is informed that Hezekiah has refused to pay tribute to Assyria and has further infuriated the king by conquering Philistine cities and unlawfully imprisoning the king of Ekron, Padi.
Just seven years after Samaria’s destruction, the Assyrian armies are threatening, and Hezekiah is advised that Lachish, just South of Jerusalem, will likely be the next target. Shebna again mentions an alliance with Egypt, but again Hezekiah refuses. The chief of the army suggests a strategy of defense, which includes the building of a 2nd wall around Jerusalem, as well as constructing a tunnel to bring water from outside the protective wall inside the city, to the pool of Siloam. Hezekiah then states that Jehovah will fight the battle for them.
As walls and weapons are under construction, the imprisoned King of Ekron asks to speak with Hezekiah. King Padi demands to be released, claiming that he can influence Sennacherib and help the Judeans. Hezekiah refuses, calling Padi a “contemptible worm.” Padi reminds Hezekiah of the brutality that awaits Judah if they continue to ignore the Assyrian king.
A discouraged Hezekiah retreats to Isaiah’s inner chambers, where the prophet tells him “these are critical times.” The king begins to doubt his rebellion against Assyria, but Isaiah reminds him that his father was a puppet in Assyria’s hands. He reminds Hezekiah that he needs to trust in Jehovah, as he has already done by pulling down the places of false worship and repairing and reopening the temple. Still, Hezekiah laments the destruction of other cities in Judah, feeling responsible for their lives. Isaiah, however, blames the demise of these Judeans on their own unfaithfulness, implying that due to their “half-hearted” spirituality, Jehovah has allowed their destruction.
Next, we are transported to the city of Lachish, where the Assyrians unleash all of their weapons in a full scale attack on the city just south of Jerusalem. As Lachish falls, Hezekiah’s advisers again suggest an alliance with Egypt and the payment of tribute to the Assyrian king. In a moment of compromise, Hezekiah sends a delegation to the Assyrian army to negotiate an agreement. This move is a costly one, as the Assyrians demand far more gold and silver than the ambassadors can agree to, and they further call for the release of Ekron’s king Padi.
Forced to comply, workers gather an immense tribute of gold and silver, even chopping off the solid gold veneers of the temple doors. Adding insult to injury, Hezekiah watches as the valuable things of Jerusalem disappear on a wagon with haughty king Padi. When the tribute finally reaches Sennacherib, the king taunts the Judean emissary, asking him why Hezekiah agreed to pay the tribute, if Jehovah was their protector. The Assyrian king screams that he cannot be bought and that he tolerates no rebellion.
Military forces advance on Jerusalem. Hezekiah sends Eliakim and Shebna and a recorder to meet the Assyrian representatives. Rabshakeh speaks loudly and clearly in Hebrew, despite pleas that he speak in Aramaic. But Rabshakeh has no intention of making his declarations private, shouting to the men on the wall that Jerusalem’s inhabitants will eat their own excrement and drink their own urine if they continue to listen to Hezekiah. Surrender is demanded; Rabshakeh correctly points out that all other opposing cities have fallen before Assyria, including those which worship the God Jehovah.
Shebna breaks down in tears in a last minute appeal to the king to listen to reason and understand that Jerusalem is trapped, like a bird in a cage. As a final measure, Hezekiah calls for the wisdom of Isaiah one last time. Isaiah declares that Sennacherib will be the victim of a conspiracy and die by the sword in his own land, Assyria.
We return to the opening scene of this drama, where Hezekiah appeals to God in prayer before the temple. He lays out the taunts of the Assyrian king before the temple and waits for God’s answer. Isaiah sends a messenger to declare the words of Jehovah himself–that he has taken notice of Assyria–and will now take action against Sennacherib, figuratively leading him by the nose back to his land before ending his life.
Seconds later, in the dead of night, a lone angel appears above the Assyrian camp; with the sound of thunder and the golden flash of electric execution, the angel swipes the encampment with a single deadly flash, slashing 185,000 soldiers in their sleep. The next morning Sennacherib wakes up to the shocking scene of corpses surrounding him as far as the eye can see. One woman, along with a guard, survey the destruction in disbelief. Nothing is left but smoldering campfires, useless weapons, and the bodies of those eliminated by God.
Back in Jerusalem, the news has reached the Hezekiah, and it’s all smiles and congratulations for the Judean king and his associates as the story comes to an end. We see the former encampment of Assyria–along with desolation and eerie peace– with no signs of life but the birds of prey circling in the distance, a subtle nod to the God who fattens the bodies of raptors with remnants of human life.
The concluding words of this drama are emblazoned across the screen:
“Jehovah rescues those who are loyal to him”
The Films Analyzed
While the contents of the “bunker” series of videos contains programming which, on the surface, is very controversial and overtly manipulative, these longer films engage the viewer in a much more subtle way than expected. The Biblical character of Job is mirrored by modern day Ethan, who, like Job, has a family, a job, and is in good health. His life is proceeding according to plan when “time and unexpected events” cause him to question everything he knows, and his life spirals into a spiritual and physical quagmire.
Ethan is expected to keep it all together amidst the loss of his son, his father, his job, even the respect of his wife. In the fairy tale style ending, Ethan’s health is restored, he receives a new job, and he has renewed faith that he will see his son and father once again in a future resurrection. While this is a fictional story, we still must ask: Did loyalty to Jehovah have any bearing on Ethan’s recovery? Are Jehovah’s Witnesses suggesting that by remaining loyal to God and his earthly organization, good things will happen?
This might seem to be the case, but what really happened here? Ethan’s son and father are dead, and Jehovah did indeed permit this to happen. His job vanished when he needed it the most, when diagnosed with cancer. His worldly brother reached out to him with support and money, but he rejected this support because his brother decided at a very young age to leave the religion. His boss offered him a promotion as a solution to his impending layoff, but Ethan rejected this as well. It seems that the only people willing to lend practical assistance were non-Jehovah’s Witnesses.
While the implication is that reliance and loyalty to God lead to favorable outcomes, the hard truth of life is that the unfavorable outcomes will always follow, and we are left with the same questions and problems with which we started out. Maybe worse. We could write our own extension of this drama: Ethan’s cancer is in remission, but it will return. “Impure” thoughts will plague his son Rowan, and he will be disfellowshipped when he has sex with a non-Witness girl from school. Sasha will have a subsequent mental breakdown and will be treated with antidepressants. Ethan’s brother Bill will not respond to the invitation to attend Witness meetings, and they will almost never see each other. This will tear the family apart. The organization offers little comfort, despite producing a motivational video about the modern-day equivalent of Job. And we are right back to where we started!
In the Bible, Satan tests Job with permission from God. Satan is allowed to kill Job’s sons and daughters, as well as his livestock (means for living). A debilitating disease troubles Job, which causes immense suffering, but since his own life is to be spared, he must endure this tribulation. All of this was, as the Bible admits, a clever social experiment worked out in heaven, with Job playing the leading role as a pawn in a chess game, which he never asked to play. Why? God needed to prove something to Satan and the universe, to answer Satan’s “taunt” that humans would not serve God without reward.
At the very core of Jehovah’s Witness belief is the notion that God has allowed intense suffering and death for thousands of years to prove that only He can rule mankind. Humans are incapable of governing themselves, and the allowance of evil for so long is, in fact, a necessary evil. The Job drama highlights that all other reasonings are invalid, and that those who feel disconnected from God due to tragedy within their own lives are faithless amoral people, like Ethan’s boss Conrad, who said:
“Prayer – there’s nobody listenin’. And if there is a God, he doesn’t have time for us.”
This film dips deeply into the emotional well of the viewer, exposing the modern-day Jehovah’s Witness family to devastating tragedy, then flipping the script, turning hopelessness into unbridled optimism. Defenders of the JW religion might suggest that hope is a good thing–but unrealistic hope for a fairy tale ending is anything but healthy. When a death occurs, Jehovah’s Witnesses replace the normal grieving process with a 30 minute sermon at a Kingdom Hall followed by the song “He Will Call”–a tear jerking reminder that the only life worth anything is the one which no one has ever lived, in a place called the “new world” where only Jehovah’s Witnesses reside.
How do Witnesses make it into this “New World”? This is where the Hezekiah drama delivers the logistics. The short answer? Violence.
The tale of Hezekiah is filled with acts of aggression, terror, fear, political maneuvering, propaganda, and, of course, death. Lots and lots of death. While mainstream Christian religions debate the veracity of allegorical stories found in Scripture, Jehovah’s Witnesses stand firm in their belief that every Biblical account is true, from the mass drowning of Noah’s day to the future fiery apocalypse of Armageddon. In between, we have the execution of 185,000 Assyrian soldiers with the powerful swipe of a single angel.
Since Jehovah’s Witnesses are Biblical literalists, the God they worship is guilty of far more genocide than any other God worshiped by the thousands of religions of the world. Perhaps there is a small degree of comfort in the knowledge that no archaeologist has ever uncovered a shred of evidence supporting the mass killing of 185,000 soldiers outside the walls of Jerusalem.
One reason Witnesses identify so readily with the Hezekiah story is that he was considered a faithful and loyal Judean king, with some historical evidence suggesting he did,in fact, exist. To this day, the tunnel connecting the spring of Gihon with the pool of Siloam still exists, although some dispute the claim that Hezekiah engineered this tunnel. Adding to this questionable provenance is the fact that the JW timeline for king Hezekiah does not match evidence from other historical sources. Witnesses almost never fact-check statements made by their organization, such as the claim that Assyria wiped out Samaria in 740 B.C.E., or that Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 607 B.C.E.
Historical evidence aside, the focus of the drama is placed squarely on the narrative that Hezekiah remained loyal to God and accepted Isaiah’s advice to lean on Jehovah instead of foreign nations. Loyalty is a recurring theme among Jehovah’s Witnesses, where organizational loyalty itself is synonymous with loyalty to God. Witnesses are taught never to lean on their own understanding, knowledge, or resources, just as Hezekiah was told not to lean on Egypt, and Ethan refused to take assistance from his “worldly” brother and boss in the Job drama.
For Witnesses, separation from the world is imperative. They often refer to the barrier between the outside world and their religion as a fence; a fence which should never be straddled. The Hezekiah story reinforces the Witness belief that it is “us against the world” and that we need to stay safe inside the walls of metaphorical Jerusalem, pray to God, and wait for salvation to come. Alliances with non-Witness organizations and family are discouraged or banned. Information is controlled. Behavior is controlled. Thoughts are polarized, filtering out all outside reasoning. Finally, Emotions are controlled with the written page, with music, and now with high-definition films.
After viewing these videos, you will likely be impressed by the quality of the production and the lengths to which the JW Governing Body has gone to deliver a message where false hope and Godly vengeance converge. As long as there are men interpreting pages from a book and translating these words into doctrine, people will follow, and they will believe what they are told. Perhaps one day, they will recognize that their loyalty is misplaced.
SN: To view the 2016 Convention video trailers, click here.
To view the full-length videos (and talk outlines/videos for the entire convention) click here.
Editors note: Please be sure to view video #4 in the 6 part series discussing the 2016 Regional Assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses, courtesy of the John Cedars channel.